CBA Shouldn't Squash Small-Market Teams' Chances

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CHICAGO—When details of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement began trickling out, initial reaction from many scouting officials and agents was that MLB and the Players Association had killed the draft. And along with it, almost any chance small-revenue teams had to compete.

As more particulars became available, it became apparent that rumors of those deaths had been greatly exaggerated.

During the five years of the previous CBA, the draft's biggest bonus spenders were the Pirates ($52.1 million), Nationals ($51.1 million) and Royals ($45.2 million). It made sense for the have-nots to mine the draft because it's the biggest bargain in player acquisition and the only arena in which they could realistically compete with wealthy franchises.

MLB's old informal slotting system was a boon to teams that wanted to assert themselves in the draft. It all but ensured that gifted players with high price tags would fall to clubs willing to pay them.

If you look at the draft as a feast of talent, the most preferable scenario for any team is an all-you-can-eat buffet. Those days are gone, now that clubs will be assigned bonus cap space based on their picks in the first 10 rounds. They face harsh penalties if they exceed their allocation, including the loss of two first-round choices if they blow past it by 15 percent of more.

But going forward, the least fortunate clubs will have much bigger plates than other teams. Well-heeled franchises like the Red Sox (fourth in draft spending over the last five years at $44.1 million) and successful small-revenue teams such as the Rays (who gamed the old free-agent compensation system to get a record 12 picks in the first two rounds of the 2011 draft) will have have much tinier dishes than they've become accustomed to.

Pirates Can Make It Work

The Pirates destroyed several bonus records in the 2011 draft. They set a new standard for overall spending at $17 million and established new marks for bonuses for any player ($8 million to No. 1 overall choice Gerrit Cole), outside the first round ($5 million to second-rounder Josh Bell) and in the ninth round ($1.2 million to Clay Holmes). They also paid dearly for Tyler Glasnow ($600,000 in the fifth round) and Jake Burnette ($550,000 in the seventh). All told, Pittsburgh spent $16.4 million in the first 10 rounds. Under the new CBA, it would have been allocated a little over $10 million in cap space.

However, when the free-agent compensation system changes after the 2012 draft, the supplemental first round will shrink considerably and each of the Pirates' picks would have moved up 15-20 spots, giving them roughly $750,000 in extra cap room. They'll also stand a chance to win one of six competitive-balance lottery bonus choices in the sandwich round that come in to play in 2013, which would add another $1.2 million to their pool.

That would give Pittsburgh $12 million to play with, and they could spend up to 5 percent ($600,000) over that without forfeiting a first-round choice. That's workable.

The Pirates could draw the line at $7 million with Cole and $3.5 million with Bell. Sprinkle in a discount college senior or two and squeeze college juniors a bit, and they could sign all but one of its players in the first 10 rounds. If Holmes winds up attending Auburn, that only mildly detracts from a strong draft class.

Red Sox Will Have To Adjust

By contrast, the Red Sox face a starker draft future. The most aggressive high-revenue team in the draft, they paid out $10 million in bonuses in the first 10 rounds of the 2011 draft, even with eighth-rounder Senquez Golson turning down a seven-figure offer to play football and baseball at Mississippi.

Boston would have about $8.5 million in cap space. The Sox still could land their four picks in the first and sandwich rounds, as Matt Barnes, Blake Swihart, Henry Owens and Jackie Bradley cost a combined $6.65 million. But even tightening those four bonuses a little wouldn't leave enough room to exceed the prescribed allotments for third-rounder Jordan Weems (who signed for $500,000), fourth-rounder Noe Ramirez ($625,000), fifth-rounder Mookie Betts ($750,000) and seventh-rounder Cody Kukuk ($800,000).

Under the new free-agent compensation system, the Red Sox likely would have made qualifying offers to Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez to receive those four choices before the second round. However, unless it has elite free agents and lets them walk every year, Boston won't have extra picks.

Assuming the Red Sox continue to pick toward the bottom of the first round, they're looking at an annual draft cap around $4.5 million. That's a far cry from the $10 million they've spent in three of the last four drafts. If they sign a top free agent—more likely if they have less homegrown talent—they'll give up their first-rounder, and their cap number will drop to around $2.75 million.

Teams no longer will be able to gorge themselves on the draft to their heart's content. The less successful teams won't go hungry, but the more fortunate clubs may find themselves starving for talent.